When a child dies, some parents quell their pain with the belief that their child is among the angels. Others find comfort in knowing their child is at rest.
They know there is a place where, in moments of quiet despair, they can drop to their knees and grieve the absence of their little body to hold.
So when photojournalist Saul Martinez learned that, in his home country of Guatemala, deceased children were being exhumed from their places of rest and being disposed of in a public burial pit, it struck him as inconceivable.
“I set out to find this cemetery that I had heard about. It was somewhat difficult to get access to it; the workers didn’t really want to let me see much at first.
“I was so shocked when I saw the remains of children being pulled out, not only because of the fact that babies were being exhumed but because a job like this actually exists.”
And so began Forgotten Children, Guatemala City, a documentary short and series of images that offer a glimpse into this unimaginable practice.
Cemetery rules stipulate that after the first six years, family members must renew their dead child’s burial plot for four more years at a cost of about (US) $24.
Failure to do so results in exhumed coffins, which are then prised open, the decomposed remains scooped out and placed in rubbish bins for later disposal.
“I wasn’t expecting to see that there are barely any remains left of him,” says a distraught mum, sat on a step, watching her child’s small white coffin being yanked from its cubby in a cement wall. “Just some clothes and a few little bones. It was a big shock – I wasn’t expecting that.”
A 36 year civil war in Guatemala, which some have termed a genocide, has resulted in the death or disappearance of more than 200,000 people, and leaving large swathes of the population in untold poverty, lawlessness and gang-related criminality.
Many families, therefore, cannot afford to pay the renewal fees, and so the fate of most dead children in Guatemala is six years of dignity in a small coffin tucked away in a small cubby – and then desecration.
Romeo Contreras, a cemetery worker, says of the job: “At first I felt scared, but after a while you get used to it – you get used to seeing the same thing every day.”
While filming the workers, Martinez noticed there were no priests present, no church representatives, no worshippers, and few religious artefacts.
“The only presence of religion are a few crosses here and there, and an image of the Virgin Mary painted on a cement wall.
“I guess it all stems from the fact that you are constantly surrounded by death in Guatemala, so I think the people leave it all to faith, but in their own way.
“It was ironic to me that outside the cemetery walls is one of the deadliest, most violent, cities in the world, and inside the walls, peaceful as it might appear, the bodies that once had life in them are not respected in death either.”
Martinez, now 34, was born in Guatemala City. His parents separated when he was seven and his mother moved to Long Island, where he and his younger brother befriended one of the few other Latino kids in the predominantly white community – a Peruvian boy named Marcos. “Our shared Hispanic background helped us bond and not feel isolated in a new country, which at times can be overwhelming. Back in the 1980s, we were among the only Hispanics in the school system.”
His father remained in Guatemala, working as a TV producer. “In September 2009, while on a visit to see family, my father sent me out to document the aftermath of hurricane Stan, which caused huge natural disasters and many deaths in the countryside. When we got to a place called Solola, there were still people being dug out from the mudslides. People were rushing to help dig, others crying and others just staring in shock at what used to be their home.
“All I had with me was a small pocket camera, so I started taking pictures. I had never taken pictures of anything more than landscapes or family photos. But I found myself so comfortable, despite being surrounded by so much tragedy, that I was hooked from the start. I am normally a shy person, but not when I have a camera in my hand, and that’s the moment I not only knew what I wanted to do in life, but I found a way to maybe help people through photography.”
Martinez returned to New York and completed a photography course at the International Center of Photography, then a BA degree in digital photography from Briarcliff College on Long Island.
“My mom has had the biggest influence on me. She’s the strongest woman I have ever, and will ever, meet. She gave up so much so that we could have the opportunities that come with growing up in the United States. So now I’m returning to my home country and documenting the reality of life there.” In some way, perhaps, seeking to better understand the reasons why they left.
For more of Saul Martinez’s work, visit his website.
His five-minute short, Forgotten Children, Guatemala City, can be viewed here.